Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 32 - Hotspur Street, W.

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READER, I am a vagabond! seriously and literally a vagabond! born with vagabond tastes and habits, of parents who, by Act of Parliament, were vagabonds (and rogues too, for the matter of that!), as were Shakespeare, Garrick Quin, Kemble, Mrs. Siddons, and all others of the same profession. As a boy I pursued a vagabond career; was a dirty boy - a hot boy - an untractable boy - a boy with mangled knees and burst elbows - a defiant, truculent, idle, impudent chaffing boy - clever as to orchard burglaries; insolvent through an overweening love of hardbake ; premature in a longing for tobacco -a boy to whom Virgil was an enemy, and Euclid an abomination, but whose friendship for a duodecimo Byron was unbounded, and who could quote long passages from a thumbed and dirty Keats, purchased at a bookstall from the proceeds of a sale of a Cornelius Nepos. As a young man, I have still been a vagabond; not the "Tom, you vagabond!" the nephew of the rich and testy old uncle in the standard comedy, as Tom is generally a dashing spendthrift, who consorts with dukes and marquises, and loses large sums at the Cocoa Tree; but a person with a taste for the odd and strange, for curious company and associates, for night wanderings in out-of-the-way places, for long summer days spent with brown-skinned gipsies and spangled acrobats, for long and familiar conversations with Punch proprietors, cheap Jacks, [-336-] and other frequenters of the racecourse; with a love for talent, natural or acquired, in any shape, however humble; and with an unmitigated aversion to mediocre respectability. I have seen a good deal of respectability, and respect it not. I have known many respectable people, and wondered at them and their ways. Clerks, mostly - legal, government-official, or  public - company clerks - philoprogenitive to an extent, with a leaning towards Dalston or Camden Town as a residence; strange and fantastic as regards apparel; people who look upon an oratorio at Exeter Hall as a recreation; call actors "performers"; and ignore Tennyson. In their turn, I will say the respectables love not me nor my fellows. They cannot comprehend us; and though the obnoxious Act of Parliament aforenamed has been repealed, and though they see us inhabiting good houses, paying rent, rates, and taxes, attending church, serving on juries and committees, and performing all proper acts of good citizenship, they still look upon us as beyond the pale of acquaintance and recognition. These are the middle classes, the suburbans, the Pancras-cum-Bloomsburys - as distinguished from the swells, the upper ten thousand, who adore us - and the fashionable moneyocracy, who follow their lead; who think us so quaint, so curious; who say we are such entertaining persons, so amusing, and with such a fund of humour; and who, with all their adoration, talk, and recognition, have as much real feeling for us as they have for Mr. Gunter, who supplies the ices, or Mr. Edgington, who builds the extempore Turkish kiosk on the first landing-place.
    And who are we of whom I am writing? What people occupy this curiously anomalous position - this Mahomet's coffin-like suspension between envy and scorn? What is that queer world which I have undertaken to describe? I will tell you. The subject of my essays are the amusing classes; those who belong to none of the three recognised professions; and who, without being sharpers or swindlers, [-337-] yet contrive to live "by their wits." Such are the literary men, the newspaper-writers, the actors, singers, and musicians; the entertainment-givers, the lecturers, the artists in oil, in water-colour, and on wood-finally, my queer world is the monde des artistes.
A queer world indeed! A world of hard strivings, and, generally speaking, small results! In some degree, a hollow, shamming world - a world with a mask on - a mask bearing a pleasant expression and a fixed grin, behind which the face of the wearer is lengthy, pale, anxious, and careworn! A world the members of which have a somewhat difficult part to play; for you, my public, come to us for recreation or distraction; and we, who live to please, must please to live. We must never be ill, dull, or dispirited; we must leave our sick couches at the sound of the overture - put off our mourning garments and don our motley when we hear the tramp of the audience coming in.
    With small means, and yet requiring some peculiar comforts, the denizens of this queer world have some difficulty in accommodating themselves with appropriate residences. The artist must have spacious rooms with a north light, at a rent to suit the exigences of his income, and yet sufficiently near the great thoroughfares for the convenience of models and sitters ; the musician must not be subjected to the resentment of soulless neighbours who object to the perpetual repetition of a symphony, rehearsed and re-rehearsed until perfection is acquired, or who are inimical to the pursuit of the vocal art under the most trying difficulties or at the latest hours ; the actor must be near his theatre; the newspaper-writer near his office; the litterateur's home must not be beyond the reach of the always worn and sleepy printer's devil - and so it comes that this queer world takes possession of one special locale, and holds it for its own.
    The locale is as queer as its inhabitants; a bygone [-338-] locale - a place that has been a quarter of the town once grand and fashionable, but now lodging-let and boarding-housed; vast gloomy mansions, with treble windows and enormous doors - the area railings furnished with extinguishers, in which the Jeameses of the bygone generations buried their flaming torches after safely depositing their mistresses at Lady Bab's drum. Inside, the rooms are also vast and gloomy too, save those occupied by the artists, whose windows are generally carried up to the floor above the staircases are broad and capacious, as are the landings and the entrance-hall. Hotspur Street may be reckoned the head-quarters of the queer world; and the houses in Hotspur Street are all of the pattern just described. The street itself combines all the requirements of its denizens one turning takes you into Oxford Street, the other end leads into Tottenham Court Road - that thoroughfare where all the necessaries of life are procurable at the lowest prices, and where the shops, relying on the dissipated manners of their customers, keep open until incredible hours. In the hot summer weather, when the cabbages lying exposed on Tottenham Court Road stalls are turned brown by the sun - when the gentleman with the Italian name gives up the chestnuts which he has vended during the winter, and produces particoloured slabs of damp and clinging nastiness which he calls "penny ices" - when the contents of butchers-shops, always unpleasant to the eye, become equally offensive to the nose - then are the precincts of Hotspur Street invaded by foreign gentlemen of fantastic appearance, in wondrous coats, cloudy linen, dapper little boots, and trousers apparently manufactured of brown-paper - these are the confreres of many of the attic inhabitants, who are attached to the Opera-band and chorus - dark, sallow-faced men with shaved blue-beards and short-cropped hair, convenient for the wearing of wigs then is a great Saturnalia carried on; Alphonse and Max tear down the stairs, rush into the street, [-339-] and, seizing upon Jules and Heinrich, enarm them then and there, and rub beard to beard with frank sincerity and hearty welcome: then the thumping of pianos, the twanging of stringed and the blast of wind instruments are redoubled; while from the open attic windows float such clouds of smoke as almost to justify the apprehensions of nervous neighbours that the premises are on fire.
    Foreigners, however, are not the only excitement in Hotspur Street; for the carriages that discharge their living cargoes at Jack Belton's door, and crawl lazily up and down until they are signalled to return and take tip, are the envy of the neighbourhood, and attract an enormous audience of the infantile population.
    Jack Belton lives at No. 136, the large house with the portico, and is now one of the first artists of the day - smiled on by the fairest of the aristocracy, courteously received by dukes and marquises, actually in favour with the Royal Academy, and not snubbed by the Hanging Committee! Times, however, were not always so brilliant with him; slowly, and step by step, has he advanced in his profession; every round of the ladder has been fought for until his present position was attained. Jack's father was a merchant-prince - a Russell Square man - a person of fabulous wealth, who, like that noble monarch George the Second, "hated boetry and bainting," and lived but for his money, his dinners, and his position in the City; a fat, pompous, thick-headed man, with a red face, a loud voice, a portly presence, and overwhelming watch-chain; a man before whom the bank-porters bowed their cocked-hats with awe, and at whose name the messengers of the Stock Exchange did obeisance out of sheer reverence; a man with many services of plate - with a splendid library which he never entered - with a country-house, and pineries, and lakes, and preserves; a man who looked down upon his son Jack (at the age of sixteen but a puny lad) with contempt, [-340-] and wondered "why the son of a British merchant should demean himself by messin' with chalks and paints, like any poor strugglin' artist!" When Jack was sixteen the crash came. Mr. Belton pleasantly over-speculated himself: shares that should have been at a premium were at a discount - a public company, which was to have made the fortunes of its directors and shareholders, suddenly burst up; Bank-porters bowed their cocked-hats no longer - men on 'Change gathered in knots, looked grave, and shook their heads ominously as they spoke of "Belton's business." If you were in Jack's confidence now, he might perhaps tell you a touching story of those days - how, as he was about to mount his pony and canter away, followed by his groom in livery, his sister, one year older than himself, came out and whispered him - how the horses were sent away; and the boy and girl went into the splendid library, where, for the first time, Jack heard the awful tidings that "Papa was ruined!" You would hear how these two brave hearts consulted and planned brave deeds - ay, and, young as they were, executed them! How Jack tramped half over London with a lithographic stone under his arm, offering his drawings for sale; how at last one spirited publisher was found who accepted them, paid the boy for his work, and brought it out in a handsome manner; how the style found favour with the public; how Jack received commissions from his publishing friend for an unlimited amount of work; and how, when carpets were festooned from the windows of the Russell Square mansion, and posting-bills were placarded against the door, announcing, in the choicest language of the late eminent Mr. James Jobbings, that the elegant and distinguished furniture, the noble paintings, the rare wines, the fine collection of ancient and modern authors, etc., were for sale within, Jack piloted the delicate sister and broken-spirited old man through the crowd of carpet-capped salesmen and jabbering Jews, and conveyed them to a neat, [-341-] respectable lodging hired by him, and maintained for many years after by the products of his untiring industry. Were you in his confidence, I say, he might tell you somewhat of this story; and now I will tell you more. I will tell you that, in the lapse of time, the old man died, blessing and reverencing the son he had once despised; I will tell you that the delicate sister is now one of the sweetest young matrons in England, married to a literary man whose name is a household word in every place where great talents and pure thoughts are appreciated. I will tell you that, if I am not mistaken - and I've a keen eye for this sort of thing - this present summer will not pass away without our seeing Jack himself (let me be polite for once, and say Mr. Belton, R.A. !) united to a sister of his sister's husband - a girl fitted for him in every way. God bless you, Jack! God bless you, noble mind and clever head ! After marriage you will quit our quarter and migrate to more fashionable regions. But we shall watch your career; every succeeding triumph will be hailed with delight, and your name will always be mentioned with enthusiasm in the queer world which you once adorned.
    Do you see that blear-eyed, wizen-faced, white-haired man, shambling up the sunny side of the street, and rubbing his short and dingy blue cloak against the area railings as he passes? That is old Solfa, and old Solfa's cloak ! He is never seen without that cloak: in it he takes his walks abroad, in it he sits at home, and encircled in its scanty folds it is firmly believed he takes his rest. Jack Gabbler, who knows everything and everybody, or, at all events, who pretends to if he does not, says he called upon Solfa very early one morning; that Solfa's voice answered him as from beneath distant bedclothes, and that on his demanding an interview, Solfa came out to him enveloped in his cloak, and apparently nothing else! He is a very old man now, but in his day he was great. An admirable musician, a pleasant [-342-] singer, master of every instrument, and being neither too proud to accompany a song, nor too modest to sit in the middle of a crowded room and sing pretty little French romans, accompanying himself on a guitar slung round his neck by a broad blue ribbon, Solfa was a great acquisition in a country-house, and went into very excellent society. He did not wear the blue cloak then, as you would readily perceive in the portrait which hangs over his looking-glass, and which he always shows to every new friend. There he is gorgeous in a huge-collared coat, in pantaloons tied with strings at the ankles, in ribbed stockings and pumps. C'était dans les jours de ma premiere jeunesee!" says the old man, pointing to it with a trembling hand, "bé - for I was old Solfa, as zey call me now." And he will tell you a long maudlin story about his wife, whom he adored, "Oh Sophie! comme je t'amais!" and who is dead. I should, however, advise you not to believe this part of the narrative, as rumour whispers that he utterly neglected Sophie, that he was always out at parties, leaving his wife moping at home (quite like Tom Moore in a small way, isn't it ?), and it was firmly believed that lie was in the habit of correcting her by personal chastisement. Now his day is over, his friends dead or grown very steady, and his place in society occupied by younger men. His voice is cracked; and at an evening party a man with a guitar and blue ribbon would only be laughed at; so Solfa has retired into private life, and given himself up entirely to what has long been his ruling passion, the desire for making money. He would go anywhere or do anything which would turn out remunerative ; he buys things at a wonderfully low rate, and sells them for large prices; he can beat down the strongest-minded Jews, and vanquish them in their own exclusive territories, the private sales and auction-rooms of London. He attends the periodical auctions with the utmost regularity ; and I have seen him coming up Hotspur Street in the gloom of the evening with the scanty cloak extended to its utmost limits, to act as [-343-] a covering for a large pier-glass which he was carrying beneath it. When I first knew Solfa, he one day pulled out of his pocket a very pretty watch, a lady's watch, enamelled and set with diamonds. I was more foolish in those days, perhaps, than I am now; and I thought of a young person whose birthday was close at hand, and whose bright eyes would look brighter still were I to present her with the watch as a gage d'amitié! well, perhaps d'amour! Solfa was, of course, disposed to sell it, and though he asked a high price, under such circumstances money is "no object," and the watch became mine. When the purchase was concluded and the money paid, Solfa said: " I vill gif you leetle advice!  Ze vatch is a goot vatch; vear him two year, then sell him! have vore him two year myself, and I think four year more he be no good."
    This is his policy, the true policy of the present day - buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest market; and by the exercise of much worldly wisdom and arithmetical shrewdness, he has collected together a large fortune. His rooms, two small attics, are crowded with clocks, pictures, statuettes, and objects of virtu, constantly changing, and all yielding a percentage. Sonic day he will be found dead in that back room. He has no relations, no friends ; but he tells everyone he has made a will, and he looks so benevolently at each of us as he says it, that I am sometimes disposed to think we have distant hopes of being down for a legacy, and that is why we stand his stories of bygone days with so much patience.
    We have very few actors left in our queer world now, though at one time they used to abound there. But they have migrated to Brompton and Chelsea, where there is quite a histrionic colony; and whence, if you lounge down Piccadilly at about six o'clock in the fine afternoons, you may see them hastening to their avocations in shoals - heavy tragedy and low comedy chatting together outside the omnibuses, while the heroines of tear-drawing melo-[-344-]drame and piquante farce come rattling up in broughams and cabs. These are great times for the gents; they love to see an actor off the stage, and it is believed that many of them, if they could make the acquaintance of Mr. Paul Bedford, and hear him call them by their christian-names in his rolling voice, would die happy. When they see any theatrical person in the street, they watch their movements closely, and are much disappointed at not perceiving any eccentricity in their walk or manner, hoping that after a few steps the actor would invert himself; and proceed for the rest of his journey on his hands, or that upon calling a cab he would spring into it head-foremost, and be seen no more.
    In Hotspur Street I think there is not a single actor left - for you can scarcely call Spouter an actor now. At one time they say he was wonderful in second-rate parts; and in the days of the Kembles and the elder Kean he used to be constantly engaged, playing what is technically called "youthful tragedy, jeune-premier, and genteel comedy," such as Cassio, Mercutio, Orlando, Don Felix, etc. They say he was particularly handsome and distingué-looking; and they tell me that marchionesses and duchesses were in love with him, and nightly appeared in certain seats when he acted. They tell me this, and I receive it as a legend. I do not think many ladies of title are nowadays in love with our theatrical young gentlemen. They say that Spouter's appearance and manners so charmed, that the Prince Regent invited him to Carlton House, and would have proved an invaluable friend to him had his Royal Highness not soon discovered, what was really the fact, that, beyond a handsome person, Spouter had no charm; that he was a dull, soulless person, who learnt his words by rote, and repeated them, with certain conventional gestures, without the slightest knowledge of their real signification.
    But the "first gentleman in Europe," with all his folly, was a much better judge of ability than half his subjects and by hundreds of families Spouter was still worshipped [-345-] and invited. There is a portrait of him by Clint still in the possession of the Roscius Club; he is standing as Mercutio, in the celebrated "Queen Mab" speech, and the animation of his handsome features is especially well rendered. This picture was engraved, and all the young ladies of thirty years ago had a print of Spouter hanging in their bedrooms; those young ladies are now middle-aged matrons; a new generation has arisen which knows not Spouter ; and the hook in the wall on which Mercutio erst hung, is now occupied by a sweet portrait of the Rev. Cyprian Genuflex, ornamented with the autograph signature of the darling curate, and the date - "Eve of Saint Boanerges."
    Yes, Spouter's day is over. He is an old man now, in a brown wig ; but he doesn't remember the lapse of time, and so pads and paints, and tooths and calves himself, that at a distance he does not look above forty-five. He is slightly deaf; too; and so accustomed has he been to flattery, that, whenever a lady addresses him, and he has not exactly caught what she said, he imagines it must be a compliment, and bows his head, saying, in a deprecating manner: "Oh you're very kind, but I am no longer young!"
    He has long since retired from the stage, and gives lessons in elocution. Looking from my window on bright summer mornings, I often see his clients at Spouter's door heavy, awkward country actors, who have received traditional accounts of Mercutio's polished elegance, and have come up for tuition; Belgravian curates in long black coats, high-buttoned waistcoats, and linen dog-collars in lieu of cravats. There is the sofa-pillow transformed into the dead body of Caesar, and over it does Horace Mattins speak Antony's oration; there does Mr. Bellows, of the T.R. Stockton-upon-Tees set forth that his name is Norval, and sneer at the bucolic disposition of his parent.
    These are some of the characters in my queer world the history of the others must be reserved for some future occasion.